Paul Pillar

In Admiration of the Japanese

The dominant sentiment one has toward the natural disaster in Japan, as we slowly learn the full consequences of what appears to have been the fourth or fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded, is of course sympathy for the Japanese people over the terrible losses they already have suffered and the additional suffering they have yet to endure. But another sentiment I feel is admiration, for how the Japanese are responding to this calamity and even how they prepared for it. The specific attributes of Japanese culture that westerners may find impenetrable—in particular, the submersion of the self in society, and the ready identification of the individual with the common good—stand the Japanese in good stead in handling such a disaster. The horrible situation is bringing out the best in their society. We are seeing it most obviously at the moment in the heroic efforts, at great personal hazard, of workers at the stricken nuclear power plant to try to bring the problems there under control to reduce the danger to their fellow citizens.  We also see it in a stoicism and in the calm that the prime minister has called on his people to display.

Rigorous and habitual concern for the safety of the community also is reflected in the very strict building codes and other precautions that did so much to keep casualties from reaching numbers that an earthquake of this magnitude would cause in most other countries. This extended even to the nuclear power plants, about which some inappropriate conclusions are being drawn in the United States. The overengineered designs worked, and even the disabled plant stood up well to the shaking of the earthquake; it was the subsequent tsunami that crippled it. If that plant had not been located close to the coast, the main post-earthquake story about nuclear power would have been how well the plants withstood the quake.

I do not see signs of as much politicization of the disaster as we would see in the United States, and I do not expect to see it. There is no Rudy Giuliani who is boosting his political career by being a ubiquitous post-disaster face. Unlike how Hurricane Katrina is discussed and remembered in the United States, the mismanagement or alleged mismanagement by particular levels of government probably will not be among the first things that come to Japanese minds as they remember this event. Instead, their memories will be dominated by thoughts of how the community of Japanese endured the disaster together and recovered from it together.

The Japanese during this difficult time not only deserve our sympathy and support but also have something to teach us.